New Orleans asks: 'What recession?'
After Katrina, the Big Easy is slowly attracting newcomers and rebuilding its economy.
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So on this day Mr. Weyland – married, bespectacled, and crisp-suited – is on a job hunt in a city that, just a few years ago, many Americans had written off, irrevocably sold down the mighty Mississippi.
"It's hard to believe, but New Orleans has become a legitimate city," he says, riding the St. Charles Streetcar line to a promising follow-up interview. "It's got jobs, great culture, history, and it's a city where people walk, which I like."
As the anchor of Louisiana – the only state with positive employment numbers – New Orleans is back.
Drawn by its walkable streets, antique neighborhoods, and laissez-faire regulation, young American workers are flocking to the Big Easy to stay, sensing an opportunity to redraw the economy and at the same time be a part of something bigger: rebuilding the only major US city to be completely devastated by a hurricane.
In many ways, it's a stunning and irony-laden turnaround for a city whose deep social inequalities were laid bare when hurricane Katrina flooded it 3-1/2 years ago.
It's too early to tell, though, whether New Orleans can build an urban economic model to help lead the nation out of its economic doldrums – or will wind up spinning downward on the tail end of the recession.
"New Orleans tends to zag when other cities zig," says Michael Hecht, president of Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development agency. "We're zagging pretty good right now."
"Think of it as the third act of our redemption story," he adds. The irony "is that while the rest of the country is mired in recession, we have a chance to leapfrog and lead the country out of this economic mess."
To be sure, New Orleans is far from perfect. It's still the country's murder capital, and social inequities and the failure of many poorer residents to return are evident in the weed-choked and snake-infested desert of the Lower Ninth Ward, where nearly 700 people died after Katrina roared ashore on Aug. 29, 2005.
At the same time, tens of billions in federal recovery aid, along with state ethics reform and business-friendly tax packages courtesy of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, have hastened the city's progress, some economists say. The city's relatively low population compared with that before Katrina has helped keep unemployment low, though the total workforce – 527,000 in the 10-parish greater metro area – still hasn't reached 1980 levels.
The $14.4 billion federal levee-improvement project, a new $3 billion refinery on the city's west side, the $500,000 renovation of the Jackson Barracks military base, and a $60 million downtown residential complex called 930 Poydras are all bucking the dreary national total for construction, which is down 13 percent from early 2007.
Add to that a key port and a largely recession-proof shipbuilding industry that services mainly the Navy and the energy industry, and it becomes clearer why the city has been able to skirt economic, if not natural, storms.